- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

Iraq election

Some years ago, I worked with a (now highly successful) young reporter who kept turning in stories with such elaborate, convoluted constructions that I was never quite sure what she was trying to say.

When I confronted her about it, she told me she really wanted to be writing literature.

“Well, fine,” I told her. “But if you want to write literature, please try to write like Hemingway, not like Faulkner.”

“But I want to write like Faulkner,” she replied.

The point is that in the newspaper business, the most important thing by far is to write clear, simple prose that can be easily understood by even the most hurried readers.

Reporters are encouraged to employ short, commonly used words and to write in the active tense, with a minimum of subordinate clauses. Always favor one short, vivid verb over a long string of adjectives, we tell them.

But once in a while a story comes along that is so obviously significant that it demands a measure of sweep and grandeur, at least in the opening paragraphs.

Thursday’s election in Iraq, arguably the most impressive exercise of democracy ever seen in an Arab country, was one such story.

Reporter Sharon Behn in Baghdad did the hard part — talking to voters in the streets and gathering details from electoral and security officials, then getting it all back to us in Washington in a coherent form.

But we editors couldn’t quite keep our hands off of this one. At least two of us twiddled and tinkered with it, looking for the language that would convey the significance of the day. And as happens all too easily in such cases, I wound up misrepresenting the reporter’s meaning.

Noting reports of large turnouts and polling stations that had to be kept open late or ran out of ballots, I tried to capture the sense of large, enthusiastic crowds of voters by making the lead say that Iraqis had “mobbed” the polling places.

I knew what I meant, but not everyone else did.

Scooping the Times

Mrs. Behn called Friday morning to say that she — and others in Baghdad who were reading her story online — had taken the word to mean the voters had been unruly and disorderly. Not so, she insisted. In fact, they had stood patiently in long lines, chatting cheerfully as they waited to thread their way through triple layers of concrete barriers, barbed wire and security guards to cast their votes.

I offered my apologies. It is bad enough to mess up a reporter’s copy at any time, but especially so when the reporter is in a place like Iraq, putting her life on the line every day to produce groundbreaking stories for the newspaper.

And Mrs. Behn has been doing just that, most notably with an article that led the front page of our Dec. 10 paper.

In that article, she quoted Saleh al-Mutlaq, the leader of an important Sunni political party, disclosing the discovery of a secret Interior Ministry prison in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood.

Disclosed after U.S. forces raided a similar prison in the Jadriya district of Baghdad several weeks earlier, the discovery threatened to exacerbate tensions ahead of Thursday’s election, Mrs. Behn wrote.

She quoted Mr. al-Mutlaq saying the prisoners had been crowded together “like sheep” and that some had been severely mistreated or sexually abused. The only thing he was unable to say for sure was whether the prison had yet been shut down.

The answer to that became public two days later when the New York Times, in its lead front-page story, reported the existence of the same prison and declared that U.S. forces had raided the building a day before Mr. al-Mutlaq spoke to our reporter.

It may seem like a small matter in the grand scheme of things, but these little scoops are what reporters and editors live for.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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